Thursday, September 24, 2009

NSF funding: Project to explore collaborative processes in SNSs

I announced this on Twitter and Facebook, but realized I haven't done so here. Cliff Lampe and I recently received NSF funding to study ad-hoc collaborative instances in Facebook and other SNSs. More about the project is available on the NSF website. I'm hopeful that this research will produce theoretical and pragmatic insights into the new ways in which we are seeking advice, information, and support from our strong and weak ties, and am looking forward to working with Cliff and our team of awesome grad students.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Media coverage of new technologies: Some thoughts on the Facebook and jealousy study

Some academic studies get picked up by the popular press, but most do not. Unfortunately – and probably because it makes for more exciting headlines – the ones that are more likely to be covered seem to be those that report negative outcomes associated with our use of technology. For instance, the original research by Kraut et al. was reported widely (“Sad, Lonely World Discovered in Cyberspace”) but follow-up studies that found these negative outcomes dissipated over time received far less attention. More recently, a study that suggested Facebook use was associated with lower academic achievement was widely (and incorrectly) reported in multiple news outlets, prompting a response in the online journal First Monday.

We are seeing a similar process unfold now, in regards to a brief (4-page) write-up of an academic study examining jealously and Facebook use titled, "More Information than You Ever Wanted: Does Facebook Bring Out the Green-Eyed Monster of Jealousy?" (by Muise, Christofides and Desmarais) which available from the publisher's website. The LA Times, for instance, warns us that “Facebook could be ruining your relationship and driving you toward compulsively jealous behavior” and that “Facebook use may be fueling wild flights of jealous investigation.” I thought it important to say a few things about what the study does and does not do.

First of all, the study is reported as a “rapid communication” and thus does not offer details that may help readers contextualize the findings. The article focuses on a variable called “Facebook jealousy” but doesn’t include all the survey questions that were used to create this variable. Thus it is unclear what it is really measuring. Likewise, a full regression table isn’t included, which makes it difficult to assess the findings. Something can have a “significant” effect on something else, but that doesn’t mean it is meaningful. So this piece should be seen as a preliminary step prompting future research as opposed to providing a definitive, conclusive model for understanding jealousy and SNS information.

The researchers use a regression analysis to examine the effect of variables, such as gender, on their outcome variable, which is Facebook jealousy. Because they used survey data from one point in time, this analysis can’t really say anything about causality – a point that is not clear in the popular press coverage. In a regression, we use the term “predict” when talking about the effect of one variable on another, but this is not equivalent to the common understanding of ‘prediction,’ which implies a statement about something that will happen in the future. In colloquial terms, prediction implies knowledge of a causal relationship, but when describing a regression it just means that one scores on one variable (such as gender) are related to scores on another (such as jealousy).

The study finds that the most important variables for predicting “Facebook jealousy” are gender and trait jealousy; together these two variables accounted for 46% of the variance in the dependent variable (Facebook jealousy). What this means is that the more jealous someone is (overall, meaning in the “real world”), the more likely it is that they will report doing things like monitoring their partner’s behavior on Facebook. This doesn’t seem all that surprising or news-worthy to me, but rather just another example of the way in which our online and offline selves and behaviors are closely intertwined. The researchers also examine the extent to which time spent on Facebook predicts higher Facebook jealousy scores, and found that there was a significant relationship such that 2% of the variance in the dependent variable was associated with time on Facebook. 2% is a pretty small contribution. It makes sense that people who spend more time on the site would be more likely to encounter information that triggers previously existing tendencies toward jealousy and that those who were already motivated to track the activities of their partner might spend more time on the site. What this study cannot claim is that Facebook makes people more jealous. Rather, it seems that Facebook is another outlet for engaging in specific kinds of behavior that are associated with jealousy in other contexts.

The authors point out, and I agree, that more research needs to be done to really understand the ways in which information found in Facebook may contribute to feelings of jealousy. What I do not agree with is the idea that Facebook constitutes a “fundamental shift” in the ways that jealousy functions within a relationship. The authors write: “In the past, flirty gestures of interest or signs of subtle disregard remained entirely within a person’s own control, and partners in close relationships were most often not subjected to the daily scrutiny of their exchanges with members of their social circle.” A substantial body of research suggests that non-verbal communication is not always within our control, and that leakage of information often occurs. This is why we pay more attention to non-verbal information, like eye contact, than to verbal information when forming impressions and assessing statements by others (although non-verbal cues aren’t always accurate, we tend to privilege them). In both online and offline settings, we may try to send one signal but actually communicate another, and those who are looking for evidence of straying interest will find plenty to ruminate over, whether it be a boyfriend’s new Facebook Friend, an offhand comment by a mutual friend, or a seemingly shifty glance or wandering eye. In short, this is another example of the process by which we use new technologies to do things we’ve always done.

It's unlikely to happen, but I would like to see equal media attention for research that explores the positive outcomes of SNS use. For instance, the most recent issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication alone includes several pieces that describe and evidence positive outcomes of SNS use; I’d love to see equal attention paid to research like the following:

Young People, Online Networks, and Social Inclusion by Tanya Notley

Old Communication, New Literacies: Social Network Sites as Social Learning Resources by Christine Greenhow, Beth Robelia

Is There Social Capital in a Social Network Site?: Facebook Use and College Students' Life Satisfaction, Trust, and Participation by Sebastián Valenzuela, Namsu Park, Kerk F. Kee

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Growing (up) on Facebook

In Growing up on Facebook, NYT writer Peggy Orenstein notes the increased use of Facebook by adults, who are posting old photos and connecting with long-lost childhood friends. She wonders about how younger people are using the site and suggests that Facebook's "most profound impact may be to alter, even obliterate, conventional notions of the past, to change the way young people become adults." In general, I think the article is useful in articulating the need for research that explores the impact of these self-presentational opportunities on identity formation, especially among young people who are growing up with, and on, social network sites, although I don't share her concerns.

Orenstein suggests that the connections to one's past resurrected by these sites will hinder, not enhance, identity development. Alternatively, I believe online spaces can be used to forward a vision of self that can serve as a roadmap forward, even with an audience of hundreds. Indeed, this ability to strategically self-present oneself online will be a critical skill (in both professional and personal contexts) for the young people Orenstein writes about. In my work on online self-presentation in online dating profiles, I've written about the ways in which users draw upon their ideal selves when constructing an online representation of self. In one instance, reported in our 2006 JCMC article, a user listed described herself as thinner than she was in "real life" - but then went on to lose weight so as to bring her actual self closer to the self represented in her profile. In these and other examples in the literature, online spaces can serve as a context for experimenting with roles and identities, and thus can enhance the development process. The difference between online dating profiles and Facebook profiles is, of course, the presence of hundreds of "friends" who are presumably acting as a deterrent for blatant mis-representation and, as Orenstein reads it, a tether to one's past life, thus constricting options for growth. I think this concern doesn't acknowledge the ability of younger users to manage their online presence and the extent to which we expect one another to change over time. An alternate perspective could see this expanded social network of people from one's history as a supportive presence that enables individuals to stretch, knowing that they have links to their past should they need them.

A second point: the article focuses on one aspect of these sites, which is to enable self-expression, and only briefly mentions the flip side of the coin: the ability to observe others. It is described in somewhat negative terms (the student who is uncomfortable hearing about the details of a "friend") but as anyone who has spent time with Facebook's series of "Less about this person" options knows, this is an easy problem to solve. The positive side of seeing others is found in the social learning that this enables and the exposure to diverse information and perspectives that it brings. Our JCMC article on Facebook and bridging social capital (which was briefly mentioned in the NYT piece) highlights the potential benefits we receive from being exposed to a larger network of weak ties. For emerging adults, like college students, exposure to different perspectives and new information is likely to be especially beneficial precisely because they are trying on different identities and figuring out whether and how to re-invent themselves. Not all of us have the ability to go away to college, or to move to New York City or San Francisco. For young people without these opportunities, perhaps the exposure to people, ideas, and information that is enabled by these sites can serve an important role in supporting, not hindering, identity development.